Sunday, October 26, 2014

Loving my Neighbor in Truth

Our first reading today, from the Book of Exodus, drops us into the middle of the instructions that God is giving to his people at Mount Sinai. This section comes just shortly after the 10 Commandments, the foundational law for how we are to relate to one another and to God. But God knew that just giving the 10 Commandments without explanation wouldn't be enough, so in the Book of Exodus, the next several chapters after the 10 Commandments are devoted to God spelling out in more detail what these commandments meant. And in this section, God is making clear that my relationship with God is not simply between me and God, to the exclusion of everybody else, but rather my relationship with God requires me to have a deep and abiding care for my neighbor, and even for the stranger. So God tells the Israelites that they have to respect the strangers among them, because they were once strangers in Egypt. They have to love the widows and orphans, the most helpless in society, because such people always have a special place in God's heart, and to oppress them is to oppress God himself. What comes out time and time again is that my love of God absolutely requires that I love my neighbor.

Moses and the 10 Commandments
But the Israelites often got this confused, and they would start to weight and twist the various commandments so that it started to look like you could love God without really caring for your neighbor or the strangers among you. This is the situation that Jesus walked into and this is the situation he was trying to speak into today. The gospel this week continues the sharp dialogue and the debates between Jesus and the Pharisees. Last week the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus by asking him a question about taxes. This week they're trying to trap him by asking a question about commandments. There is an important lesson in this for us, because we, like the Pharisees, run the danger of weighting the commands and precepts of our God to suit our own purposes. But Jesus lays out priority number one and priority number two very clearly, and then everything has to be considered relative to those. First, you love God above else, and second, you love your neighbor just as much as we love yourself.

Love of God considered just in itself calls to mind our religious duty, our duty to attend Mass and to participate in the liturgical life of the Church. But it is incomplete without the second great commandment. Just to go to Church and worship God is incomplete if I ignore him in my neighbor. So I have to love my neighbor as myself too. To love my neighbor as myself completes the first commandment, it is not just an add-on to the first commandment.

If loving my neighbor is so important, if it in fact is a crucial part of loving God, then how do I do it? If this is so important, then it's something I want to get right. How do I love my neighbor? This important question has come up in Rome recently, at least implicitly. A couple weeks ago, various cardinals, bishops, and other experts gathered in Rome for what was called the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. A synod is a meeting of clergy and laity for a particular purpose, so basically, this was a meeting about how the Church addresses the challenges facing families in this day and age. If you followed this synod at all through the secular media, then you might have been led to think that this synod was entirely focused on how the Church reacts to homosexual couples and divorced and remarried couples. This couldn't be further from the truth. You may have been led to believe that there has been an earth-shattering shift in Catholic teaching on divorce or homosexuality. This couldn't be further from the truth. Never get your news about the Church from secular sources. They've been getting us wrong for decades and they continue to get us wrong today.

But what this synod was really about, and why we're talking about it today, is how we love our neighbor, no matter who they are or what position they find themselves in. And the thing we need to understand today is that if you love your neighbor, then you give them the truth, not lies. Truth comes from God, lies come from my own big fat ego that insists I know best. Truth can save your neighbor, lies do nothing more than make you feel good. So at this synod, the truth of marriage and family was affirmed once again: Marriage is forever, and if you are divorced and remarried outside the Church, you shouldn't receive Communion. Yet divorced people are still welcome in our Church. Marriage is between man and woman, protected and blessed by God as a sacrament for the good of the couple and their offspring, and yet people who experience same-sex attraction are still welcome in our Church.

If we love our neighbor as ourself, then we want to feed them with the truth, even when it at first sounds harsh. If I love my neighbor, then I have to tell him that if you're divorced and remarried outside the Church, you shouldn't receive Communion, and I have to tell him that the meaning of marriage is given by God, and not by us. If we don't love our neighbor, then we want to feed them with lies, like "Communion is cool if you're divorced and remarried," or "marry whoever you want as long as you're committed," because those lies make us feel good, it makes everybody like us, and no one is unhappy. But those lies don't draw my neighbor closer to God. Recently, the archbishop of Philadelphia, Archbishop Chaput, was asked his opinion of the synod, even though he wasn't there. He said something (skip to 57:00 to hear it from him) that sounds harsh but actually contains in it a very important truth. Regarding the Church's acceptance of people with same-sex attraction, Archbishop Chaput said, "We have deep respect for people with same-sex attraction, but we can’t pretend that they’re welcome on their own terms. None of us are welcome on our own terms in the Church; we’re welcome on Jesus’ terms. That’s what it means to be a Christian—you submit yourself to Jesus and his teaching, you don’t recreate your own body of spirituality."

The Good Samaritan
And lest we think that Archbishop Chaput is just some out-of-touch cleric who has no love in his heart, in that same speech he also said "If we ignore the poor, we will go to hell. If we blind ourselves to their suffering, we will go to hell. If we do nothing to ease their burdens; then we will go to hell. Ignoring the needs of the poor among us is the surest way to dig a chasm of heartlessness between ourselves and God, and ourselves and our neighbors." If we love God, and if we love him in our neighbor, no matter which neighbor it is, then Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, will bless your neighbor and you through the mutual exchange of love.

St. Paul lived these two commandments well, and so in our second reading today he is explaining what happened because he did so. Because he loved God and loved his neighbors, those to whom he preached started to imitate him. He said today "You know what sort of people we were among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord." Because Paul followed these two commandments, he stirred the faith of his followers into a living flame. He said later in the reading, "For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth not only in Macedonia and in Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has gone forth." Because Paul followed these commandments, his followers recognized the love of God in him and couldn't help but spread that love to the whole world.

For ourselves, if we consider our love of God under these two aspects: love of God and love of neighbor, those around us will start to recognize God in us. If we are not cold, uncaring Christians, but rather Christians with a deep and honest care for the world, and for helping the world come to know Christ in truth, then this world, each and every one of our neighbors, will be attracted to the presence of Christ and Christ's truth they see in us.

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